No, containing ISIL is not “good enough”

ISIL Group Pic

Is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) contained? And would that be good enough? Dr. Christopher Bolan of the U.S. Army War College seems to think so. He argued as much recently here at War on the Rocks. While Bolan’s line of reasoning is appealing to many Americans who are tired of costly foreign entanglements, both parts of his argument fall apart when subjected to scrutiny.

ISIL is not contained. Bolan states that approximately 30,000 ISIL fighters, armed with little more than rifles, face a formidable array of weaponry from the Iraqi military, including main battle tanks, air forces, and artillery, and that they’re surrounded by enemies on all sides (a point also made by WOTR’s Daveed Gartenstein-Ross). While on paper this is persuasive, it’s also useful to remember that just two years ago, with a force of slightly more than 3,000 fighters, ISIL took on the formidable array of weaponry from Syria’s President Assad. The result? ISIL not only survived, but thrived, now controlling terrain the size of the United Kingdom, which spans both Iraq and Syria, and encompasses 60% of Syria’s oil production. Analyzing the amount of equipment and numbers of troops to determine a given military outcome is a great classroom tool, but it has little bearing in the real world. The fact is that ISIL, while acting like a nation-state, isn’t one. It’s an ideology that’s rapidly growing despite what Bolan calls “containment” that’s “good enough.”

At its core, ISIL wants an ever-expanding caliphate. They are not rational state actors who analyze the costs and benefits of continued action according to Western standards. Action itself, in pursuit of this distant objective, is the group’s reason for existence. To assume that ISIL will be satisfied to remain within the bloody borders they’ve already carved is to mistakenly think that Cold War theories of deterrence apply to them. They do not. ISIL will not stop until it is destroyed as a cohesive group or it succeeds. And that success isn’t restricted to Iraq and Syria. When ISIL proclaimed a caliphate, it projected an area that encompasses the entirety of the Middle East, and in some statements, parts of northern Africa. This sounds ludicrous, I know, but just recently, Islamists in Libya swore fealty to ISIL, and members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria broke away from that core group and pledged allegiance to ISIL. Even Boko Haram, the murdering sect in Nigeria that’s not connected to ISIL has proclaimed a caliphate. The fight against this ideology isn’t restricted to Iraq, as the success of the Islamic State in that land has generated enormous support in areas far removed. The success of ISIL in controlling and governing terrain — a first for any jihadist organization — has given a real sense of legitimacy to the notion that the establishment of a caliphate in the modern world is not nearly as ludicrous as many think, and other extremist groups are now striving to emulate. As long as ISIL remains a viable state-like institution in Iraq, this will continue, until we won’t just be “containing” ISIL in Iraq, but also in Libya, Sudan, Mali, and Algeria. And therein lies the rub. Yes, as a state-like entity, we can “contain” the current Islamic State to the borders it already owns, but we can’t contain the ideology this situation encourages to flourish.

There is a well-worn theory of counterinsurgency called the “oil spot.” Succinctly put, if an element pacifies one hamlet, then another, and another, the pacified areas will expand, connecting like oil spreading on water and defeating the insurgency. ISIL has taken this theory and turned it on its head, using the oil spots not to pacify, but to conquer. Sitting back satisfied that they’re “contained” in Iraq is asking for a much bigger fight in the future, as the “contained” Islamic State will act as command and control — and inspiration — for conquest in far-flung lands, like the burning ash from a forest fire blowing in the wind. And, unlike al Qaeda, ISIL won’t have to do it with its most influential figure hiding in a building in Abbottabad and relying on couriers. Do we wish to attempt “containment” all over the globe, or put out the fire at its base?

Bolan’s analogy comparing ISIL to Mexican drug cartels misrepresents the application of violence, and using one to contrast the other is misleading. He states that the drug cartels have beheaded plenty of people right on our border, and yet it took the beheading of two American journalists in the Middle East to enrage America and drive it to action. But these atrocities are not as comparable as Bolan would like to think. While I discussed this very thing in a blog post two years ago, before the rise of ISIL, there is a distinct difference between these phenomena. The cartels kill to maintain a flow of drugs into the United States. It’s the market economy driven to its most Darwinian extreme. ISIL kills purely because of its ideology. It kills because the person under the blade does not deserve to live, no matter what he has done to oppose the caliphate. His very existence is the opposition. If allowed to freely distribute its product without hindrance, the cartels would not kill. This is the exact opposite of ISIL. If allowed to freely continue, their very purpose would be to kill anyone not converting to their perverted vision of Islam. Ask a Yazidi whether ISIL brutality is comparable to the drug cartels. I don’t think he’d agree.

Bolan contradicts himself by first stating that ISIL is contained because of the military might and “natural enemies” arrayed against it, then stating that further operations against ISIL are ridiculous because we have no trustworthy partners in the region to help us. Notwithstanding the fact that ISIL is currently “contained” because of American airpower, he can’t have it both ways. Either ISIL is doomed to destruction because of all of the enemies surrounding it, or it’s ridiculous to attempt to destroy it because of the duplicitous, prevaricating allies we have available to us.

There are distinct consequences of accepting Bolan’s argument at face value and simply calling the current end state “good enough.” I mentioned one repercussion above — the consequences of the perception of ISIL’s success among other jihadist groups — but there are others.   First, Bolan makes the mistake of assuming that ISIL’s capabilities will remain static even if their borders do. ISIL’s continued existence, whether contained to its present locations or not, is a siren call for foreign jihadists. ISIL has seen the greatest influx of foreign fighters in modern times – many of them westerners – and this is a direct result of their claim to a caliphate. A direct result of would-be jihadists seeing nothing but success. Allow ISIL to remain – to be “contained” – and the number will only grow. It’s impossible to predict how many of the fighters would have become radicalized regardless, but logical to assume, given past history, that it wouldn’t be near as many as ISIL has recruited through social media and other outlets. And make no mistake, once they’ve entered ISIL’s embrace, very few will turn back.

Second, ISIL has slaughtered innocents on a mass scale, and intends to continue doing so. Just because they aren’t doing it in America does not absolve the United States of global leadership, and that leadership extends beyond whether a cheap supply of oil is threatened. The moral implications alone merit the group’s eradication.

Third, ISIL has invaded and destroyed the boundaries of two different nation states, claiming such borders are illegitimate. By containing them in place, we’re basically saying, “that’s okay.” One of the tenets of the ISIL fight is that Iraq remains a sovereign state, including Kurdistan. Whether one agrees with this position or not, it’s the administration’s stance. If we were to follow Bolan’s advice, what’s to keep Kurdistan from leaving outright? How can we ask them to remain a part of Iraq when we’re allowing another group – that seized Iraqi terrain by force – to keep what they have? There is an example of a more appropriate response to such a violation of international norms in the past, and Bolan even mentions it. In 1991, Saddam Hussein claimed that the country of Kuwait was illegitimate and actually a historical rump of Iraq. He invaded. And we reacted with Desert Storm. How is this situation with ISIL different? Bolan claims that we are emotionally over-reacting, but I believe it’s the opposite. The very debate about whether to destroy ISIL is clouded by our long incursion into Iraq beginning in 2003. Imagine an alternate reality, where Saddam Hussein fell due to the Arab Spring — without any American involvement. Then, ISIL appears just as it has. Would we even be having this debate? No. Without the anxiety of “another Middle East war,” we would clearly see the danger and remove it. Which brings up a final point.

Bolan claims ISIL poses no “imminent” threat to the homeland, and has no capability to conduct a large-scale attack, but this is precisely because they are focusing all of their energy on surviving a battlefield fight. Sitting back and “containing” them allows space and time for the development of such a capability, and make no mistake, that is exactly what they want. Like al Qaeda before them, they’ve stated repeatedly that the United States is a target. From declaring that they’re coming to the White House, to the first American suicide bomber in Syria predicting our demise, ISIL has made no secret of its plans. And the planning is sinister indeed. Recently, an ISIL laptop was captured in Syria. In it were thousands of documents related to chemical munitions and the weaponization of biological agents. The sawhorse argument is that it’s too hard to do such a thing, and ISIL doesn’t have the technological capacity. This might be true today, but in August of 2001, I would have said it would be impossible to destroy the World Trade Center using nothing but box cutters. All warfare requires two things: the will to use force, and the capability to leverage that will. ISIL has the will in spades. Why would we wait until they have the capability?

At the end of his piece, Bolan repurposes a question from Gen. Petraeus: “Can anyone tell us how this ends?” I cannot predict the various twists and turns if we continue our efforts to eradicate the scourge known as ISIL, but I can damn sure tell you how it will end if we declare the current state “good enough.”   And it isn’t with ISIL focusing on free healthcare in its nascent caliphate.


Brad Taylor is a 21-year veteran of US Army Infantry and Special Forces, and has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He retired in 2010 as a Lieutenant Colonel.  He holds a masters of science in defense analysis with a concentration in irregular warfare from The Naval Postgraduate School, and is the author of six New York Times bestsellers.  He can be found at